Book review: Swallow



Sefi Atta’s novel, Swallow, was both a blessing and a curse. I bought it three years ago to read on my Kindle because I knew that I had a long bus ride coming up, but I couldn’t put it down after I purchased it. I was already halfway through it before I even boarded the bus. There was a lot of thumb-twiddling for the last two hours of that journey.

It was hilarious, insightful, harsh, and nerve-wracking. I really got into the characters. Atta discusses everything from workplace sexual harassment, corruption, poverty, what those of us raised in the West would call “child abuse” and what our counterparts raised in Africa would probably just call “parenting,” prostitution, to relationships— between mother and daughter, husband and wife, roommates, neighbours, and colleagues.

One central theme is motherhood and its relationship to marriage. One of the characters says that in childhood, she believed that

the worst thing for a woman was to be married. Yes, I knew that I would be one day. All girls did. You reached a certain age and you were married off. Your family arranged that. They received your dowry: cloth, yams, palm oil, goats, or whatever your husband’s family could afford, to show his appreciation for your upbringing. It was a token, nothing more. You moved into his home, had children, and took care of them.

The same character, later, when berated for not having had a child thinks, “So that was all I was born for, to give birth?”

Although she’s a fictional character speaking about what I’m guessing is the early 1960’s, is it really all that different from real life in 2016? Although those in urban areas are less likely to participate in the dowry system, in my experience, it’s still a given that you leave your “father’s house” to go and join your husband. My maternal cousin, for example, when she knew that I was getting married (don’t worry, that crashed and burned spectacularly) and wanted to have the wedding in Japan because that’s where I grew up, agreed that’s where it should take place, but for a totally different reason: “He’s coming for you, so you should have the wedding your parents are.” “Um, no,” I said. “He’s not buying me.” She said “I know he’s not buying you, but he’s coming for you.”

How is that different from buying me?

My paternal aunt also once made a comment that when I get married, since I will be absorbed by my husband’s family, maybe the family curse would be lifted for me.

I was working at a human rights organization where I was chastised for not subscribing to gender roles. A human rights organization. People constantly tell me that I’m never going to find a man who will accept that I don’t want to have children. I was once at a birthday lunch where my Ghanaian-American friend who I’ve mentioned before announced to the entire table that I didn’t want to have kids because I didn’t want my body to change, and everyone (except the birthday girl, who, ironically was pregnant) began attacking me for it.

I am not joking. They descended upon me like a bunch of fucking vultures on a wildebeest carcass. Arguing with me that their bodies bounced back, trying to analyze why didn’t I want to,  and my friend’s mom telling me that I’m a woman and I have to give a man children because they’re entitled to have them, and wouldn’t tolerate a woman who wouldn’t have children.


It’s common for everyone to think that they know a woman’s mind better than she knows her own- she will change her mind about wanting to have children, or she will realize that it’s her obligation to her husband/the earth/as an African, and will do so. When you add specific cultural expectations, it seems to me that women’s agency is nonexistent; that personal rights are meaningless, and that the messages in Atta’s book are reality for so many.

Have you read Swallow? To what extent do you think it reflects the realities of being an African woman today? Do/did you feel pressured into having children even if you didn’t want any? Do you think an African woman is obligated to have children for her husband?

What About Your Husband?



You might meet this guy. He might want you to have kids.

One thing that African people like to ask me— well, if I’m being real, it’s not just Africans, it’s damn near everybody— likes to ask me when they find out that I’m not having children is “What about your husband?”

I asked my mom a few years ago if she wanted grandchildren. She said it wasn’t really about whether or not she wanted grandchildren, but that was about what I wanted. And besides, would I really have a kid just because she told me to? I was not expecting her to answer this way, and I extremely relieved to have that pressure lifted. Then she said “What about your husband?”

I have a Japanese friend who also doesn’t want to have children. In his words, “I can see no benefit to having a child.” We talked about it a lot. Then one day he asked me “But what about your husband?”

I don’t understand why people are so preoccupied with this phantom husband. Why do the wishes of this hypothetical man trump my own rights to determine what happens to my own body?

I was at a conference for work a few years back in Accra, and I met a  Ghanaian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway, and yet somehow had the audacity to lecture me about not having African values. Yes, of course; the best way to demonstrate your commitment to African values is to marry a white man and then immigrate to Scandinavia. (Note: I’m not against interracial marriage. Or immigration. I just found this a strangely obtuse and hypocritical thing to say, given her choices.) Among a bunch of other stupid shit she said, she told me that my boyfriend at the time was going to have to be the head of the household, because he’s a man, and there’s no way two people can be equal because the United States has a president and a vice president.

Obviously, I disagreed, since I’m a grown-ass human being, and no one is going to be the “head” of anything in my life simply because he was born with external genitalia and I wasn’t. She asked “what about when you have children?”

I can’t lie. If I had been able to lie, I would maybe have said something along the lines of “We will parent them equally.” Or as one of my friends said about her house “We rule jointly has heads,” which cracked me up. (Specifically her use of the word “rule,” as though her house is a kingdom. Queendom, I mean) Unfortunately, I said “Yeah, I’m not having kids.”

[Cue storm of shit.]

“But- you- well, he’s still an African man, you know. If you’re not going to have kids you need to tell him now. You have to have children.” (This same woman had passed around pictures of her “three beautiful children” earlier completely unsolicited, so she might just have had an irrational preoccupation with parenting.) Why she thought I wouldn’t have discussed that with my own boyfriend, I will never know. I told her that being my boyfriend, he was already well aware of the fact that I was not having children, and she did a bunch more sputtering about “the love you have for a child” and how “he’s an African man” and that “No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.”  And you know what? She convinced me.

Just kidding, of course she didn’t.

When I was still with the aforementioned ex, he told his sister that I didn’t want to have children, and reported that she had something along the lines of “How can she deny an African man children?” and that she was going to want to lecture me about it when we met. He also told me that she said he could find a “better girl” than me who will have kids.

The idea that a man is entitled to use someone else’s body, a woman’s body, for his own desires makes me sick. This “what about your husband?” business is rooted in misogyny. It’s just a way of reinforcing the idea that a woman is secondary to a man in every way, and specifically that African women are secondary to African men. The idea that a man is entitled to use a woman’s body because of where he comes from is completely abhorrent, and it’s completely sexist.

For most people, the expectation that a woman is “supposed to have children” doesn’t seem to be an issue because most people want to be parents, and most people also don’t question the ideals they were brought up with. That’s how it’s all “supposed” to function. The man pays a dowry (buys a woman from her original owner, her dad), then she moves into his house, becomes his property, and when she gestates, births, feeds, and raises the children, they get his name, because he is the “head of the household.” And according to these patriarchal standards, a woman who understands that her role is to submit and to continue a man’s lineage is “better” than one who has the audacity to think she’s in charge of her own body.

My mom’s question floored with me with how sexist it was, and it also showed me that I’m a child that she had for her husband, and I have nothing to do with her family. As a woman, I’m to do the same thing for my husband, even if I don’t want to, or even have a husband. According to my ex(’s sister), I don’t have the right to “deny” an African man a child. What fucking right does anyone have to “deny” a human being the right to decide what happens to their own body, African man or not?

Oh, that’s right, I’m not a human being. I’m a woman. By default, I have conceded control of my sexual and reproductive rights, because some man somewhere might marry me, and my life and body are all about what he might want.

What do other childfree Africans think? Are you married? Do you want to get married? Will you forego marriage because it means that you don’t get to be childfree? Did you want to have children when you didn’t want to because of societal expectations? What’s the obsession with the imaginary husband?

Photo credit: Mila Supinskaya via Shutterstock